Hellbender and snake under water

In 2018, David Herasimtschuk won the Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles category with his image, Hellbent

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a freshwater perspective

Around 126,000 different species worldwide rely on freshwater ecosystems to survive.

Despite this abundance of life, freshwater environments pose unique challenges for wildlife photographers, who need patience, curiosity and adaptability in equal measure.

Working with non-profit Freshwaters Illustrated for the last nine years, David Herasimtschuk is committed to documenting these habitats through freshwater photography.

He says, 'Growing up along the banks of a river, my passion and love for them developed at a very early age.

'It wasn't until college where I began to truly gain an appreciation and understanding of the unique diversity that inhabited freshwater environments.'

Since those early days, David has established his reputation as one of the best freshwater photographers in the world.

In the last few years, along with Michel Roggo, he has been one of Wildlife Photographer of the Year's only entrants to be consistently awarded in the competition for work in freshwater. He has five awarded images to his name, four of which were taken in freshwater ecosystems.

He says, 'My fascination with freshwater is often fuelled by the unknown.

'Unlike marine environments, freshwater has never had a Jacques Cousteau, nor an inspired group of artists and photographers to celebrate the aesthetics and diversity that inhabit these flowing waters.'

Working in freshwater

Often dealing with strong currents and low temperatures, photographers working in freshwater face certain mental and physical challenges.

David says, 'Even after thousands of days spent on the river, both above and below the surface, I'm still continuously humbled by the unforgiving nature of these environments.'

Patience may be a virtue to most, but to those working in freshwater photography, it's a necessity.

'Much of my work often involves lying motionless for hours to allow wildlife to become comfortable with my presence,' David explains, 'so a dry suit coupled with a thick pair of neoprene gloves and hood is essential to my success and safety.

'In many ways you're documenting things that very few have ever seen. For some species it's taken me years of research and exploration to create an interesting image.'

Fish swimming in freshwater

Spawn Rivals by David Herasimtschuk. Finalist, Under Water, 2017.

David's desire to develop a deep understanding of his subject's behaviour is key to his success.

'Most days aren't a great success, photographically speaking, but I love being on the river and learning.

'Timing is also a key element to freshwater photography. Many species are often most active and colourful during their breeding season. These behaviours are also heavily cued by precipitation, so I'm regularly checking the weather report looking for the next big rainstorm.'

One of the biggest obstacles to success is finding the right freshwater environment - and once that's secured, keep your fingers crossed that conditions stay on your side.

Rivers outside of public lands are often polluted, making life difficult for photographers and severely impacting on wildlife.

'Unless you're working in a freshwater spring, there is a high probability the water conditions will be less than ideal.

'Many rivers are heavily influenced by urban and agricultural runoff that results in increased sedimentation and pollution. Not only do these factors make photography tough, they also severely impact many aquatic creatures, like hellbenders.

'These fully aquatic salamanders use their skin to absorb oxygen through the water, and because of this they are extremely sensitive to pollutants in the water.'

At home with hellbenders

David's first awarded image in the competition was taken on an amphibian research project in Ecuador's Yasuní National Park. He was focusing on frogs, but found a companion in a curious tapir. 

In the eye of a tapir by David Herasimtschuk, USA. Highly Commended, Behaviour: All Other Animals, 2010.

He says, 'My strange new field assistant made for a great photography subject.

'I love to try and document all the weird and fascinating interactions and niches that are shared between species.

'I believe that one of the best ways to grow and evolve as a photographer is to photograph subjects that are outside of your comfort zone.'

It was five years before his work was seen in the competition again, in 2015, with his shot of two hellbenders - a species far more familiar to him - clamping down on each other's jaws.

David adds, 'Exploring the strange and wild world of hellbenders is nothing short of science fiction.

'Growing over two feet long and covered with wrinkly folds of skin that oscillate within the current, the hellbender salamander is one of the most bizarre animals found on this planet.

two hellbenders head to head

David's Finalist image from the Amphibians and Reptiles category in 2015, Head-strong Hellbenders

'However, it is these unusual characteristics that make this living fossil one of the most beautiful and important river creatures you will ever see. These bizarre salamanders can be quite difficult to photograph, and conveying their unique diabolic charisma even more so.'

In Wildlife Photographer of the Year 54, David's freshwater prowess led his images to dominate the Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles category. His winning image, Hellbent, once again featured a hellbender.

He says Hellbent was very much the result of luck and being in the right place at the right time.

'What I love about these two photos is that they truly epitomise the otherworldly characteristics of hellbenders.'

March of the newts

David's other awarded image from Wildlife Photographer of the Year depicts a band of rough-skinned newts as they battle to breed.

He says, 'Throughout the image, each newt has its own unique, strange action and expression that helps illustrate the energy of the scene.

'Photographing newts underwater is actually quite comical. The males are often so ready to mate, I'll usually have a couple hanging off of me and the camera.'

The shot captures endearing animal behaviour, but it also carries an important conservation message.  

The Spring Ball by David Herasimtschuk, USA. Highly Commended, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles, 2018.

The Spring Ball is part of a collaborative project between David and Freshwaters Illustrated, who work with a number of other agencies and organisations to protect and conserve salamander species all over the world.  

David says, 'Many salamander species have life cycles that incorporate both terrestrial and aquatic stages.

'Being able to document the different stages of a salamander's life and the different environments they rely on is great tool for showing how interconnected ecosystems are, and why protecting these environments requires an entire watershed approach.'

Salamanders are currently under threat from the spread of the Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans or Bsal, a fungal pathogen that is fatal to many species of salamanders.

David says, 'The unfortunate reality from many biologists I have spoken with is not if Bsal will spread to North America, but rather when.

'Freshwaters Illustrated is currently working to create films and photo sets that raise awareness with regard to Bsal.

'With a groundswell effort, promoting scientific research and engaging citizen science, we're taking a comprehensive approach to help save salamanders.'

This approach has led to the production of films such as March of the Newts, which highlights how the public can join the conservation effort.

To learn more about salamander conservation, visit www.salamanderfungus.org.

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